Washington is keeping up efforts to put Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations back on track despite "unhelpful steps" taken by both sides in the past day, a senior U.S. official said on Wednesday.
A surprise decision by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday to sign more than a dozen international conventions that could give Palestinians greater leverage against Israel left the United States searching for a way to keep the talks alive past an April 29 deadline.
"Both sides have taken unhelpful steps over the last 24 hours. But neither party has given any indication...that they want to end the negotiations," the senior U.S. State Department official told reporters in Brusssels.
"We will spend the next few days continuing to discuss with both parties the options for the path ahead," the official said.
The Palestinians had handed over to a U.N. representative and other diplomats applications to join 15 international conventions. They include the Geneva Conventions, the key text of international law on the conduct of war and occupation.
A senior Palestinian official, voicing frustration deepened by Israel's failure to carry out a pledged release of several dozen Palestinian prisoners, also said on Wednesday that the eight-month-old talks had become merely "negotiating about negotiating".
Palestinian officials said Israel's failure to free the prisoners meant Abbas was no longer bound to a commitment not to confront it at the United Nations and other international bodies.
The developments further complicated efforts by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to piece together a three-way deal to push the faltering negotiations into 2015.
The talks were already in trouble over the issues of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem - land captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War - and Palestinian opposition to Netanyahu's demand to recognise Israel as a Jewish state.
Israel had said it first wanted a Palestinian commitment to negotiate past the original target date for a deal before freeing the last of the 104 prisoners it promised to release as part of U.S. efforts to restart the negotiations last July.
"Up to the parties"
Kerry had canceled a planned visit to the West Bank city of Ramallah on Wednesday to meet Abbas, saying it was important to keep the peace process moving but "in the end, it is up to the parties".
Palestinians hope Abbas's move will give them a stronger basis to appeal to the International Criminal Court and eventually lodge formal complaints against Israel for its continued occupation of territory seized in 1967, lands they see as vital to an independent state. Most countries deem the Israeli settlements as illegal.
A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to comment on Abbas's move.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, deputy head of the PLO, cautioned on Wednesday against simply returning to an "empty routine" at the negotiating table. He reaffirmed that Palestinians wanted talks to focus on setting the future borders of their state.
"We can't return to the empty routine, a search for a framework for talks - this empty routine which is negotiating about negotiating," he told reporters.
Continuing the talks beyond the end of this month, he said, "must proceed from and depend on one main point, and this is looking into the issue of borders."
The conventions signed by Abbas were mostly sets of international standards on social and rights issues, such as a conventions against discrimination against women and for the rights of disabled people as well as the Geneva Conventions.
Law professor Robbie Sabel, a former legal adviser to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, described Abbas's signature on the conventions as "merely symbolic". He noted Abbas had stopped short of applying for membership in international organisations.
Kerry made an unscheduled visit to Jerusalem on Monday seeking to extend the negotiations by putting together a proposal that included the possible release of Jonathan Pollard, an Israeli spy jailed in the United States in the 1980s.
The package, officials close to the talks said, included an additional Israeli release of hundreds of jailed Palestinians and a possible partial freeze on the settlements.
Pollard, a U.S. citizen and former navy analyst, is serving a life term for spying for Israel. His freedom would be a political triumph for Netanyahu, making it easier for him to sell a wider release of jailed Palestinians to cabinet members and a sceptical Israeli public.